GAINESVILLE -- Will Muschamp’s family and friends face a tough task this Christmas: It’s going to be very difficult to get Muschamp a better present than the one he already picked out himself.
After two seasons in Gainesville without notable production at the wide receiver position, Muschamp went out and hired former Kentucky head man and longtime receivers coach Joker Phillips to guide the Gators’ group of pass catchers.
Phillips will also hold the title of recruiting coordinator — an important position and one in which Phillips has proved successful, convincing future NFL receivers Randall Cobb and Steve Johnson to join him in Lexington while coaching the Wildcats.
Although Phillips didn’t arrive in Gainesville wrapped in colorful paper, he is certainly a gift for Muschamp and for Florida, which has not had a wide receiver catch more than 31 passes or lead the team in receptions the past two seasons. Muschamp said he was immediately drawn to Phillips based on his character and reputation. Twenty-plus years coaching receivers and experience as an offensive coordinator and head coach didn’t hurt, either.
“It’s always good and I always felt more comfortable as a defensive coordinator when I had guys in the room that had sat in my chair,” Muschamp said. “A lot of people don’t like that. They’re insecure about having people in the room that have sat in the chair. I like that. I like having guys that have been there and understand how you’ve got to think and see the big picture offensively.”
Although graduate assistant Bush Hamdan, who replaced Aubrey Hill after Hill resigned in August, will coach the receivers in Florida’s bowl game against Louisville, Phillips has been at the team’s recent practices and senior Frankie Hammond said he has already been making an impact.
“He’s coming into practice with us and any little thing we do wrong he can put his two cents in,” Hammond said.
And quarterback Jeff Driskel and offensive coordinator Brent Pease both pointed to the receivers when asked who is standing out during bowl practices.
That’s exactly what Muschamp wants.
“I told the receivers, you’ve got a month audition,” Muschamp said. “You have 15 practices to go play really well and get a great first impression for your future position coach.”
If talk from the Driskel and coaches are any indication, they are responding.
Driskel said it seems the wide receivers have “improved the most” of any position group during bowl practices.
“They’ve run clean routes, they’ve made plays, they’ve made tough catches,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot better, especially at the receiver position.”
Hammond said the group has been practicing with a chip on their shoulder, and Pease agreed.
They have good reason to be motivated. The 100th-ranked receiver in FBS this season averaged 58.83 yards per game; Florida did not have one average more than 25.5 and had only two receivers with more than two touchdown receptions all year.
Once a five-star recruit with an infinitely high ceiling, junior Andre Debose caught just two passes for 11 yards this season, just one year after catching 16 for 432 yards and four touchdowns. But, according to Pease, even Debose is starting to show signs of a turnaround.
“For whatever the reason behind it, I think [the wide receivers] understand they want to get better,” Pease said. “Things take time to improve, it’s not just an overnight deal.
“[Debose has] had really good practices. I think he’s healthy, he’s working hard and his attitude’s right. He’s done some good, and we’re trying to get him involved in some things. He’s kind of refocused, and hopefully he’s a guy that continues doing what he’s doing and you’ll see him out there doing some things.”